Warren Falls: A Postscript (Part 1 of 2)


Warren Falls lives! Well, on a few days each year, after heavy rainfall…

The campaign to restore Warren Falls in the Columbia River Gorge is over, at least for now.

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is putting the final touches on the latest section of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail, from Starvation Creek to Lindsey Creek (more on that in part two of this article), and undoing their diversion tunnel at Warren Falls was not part of the deal.

While Warren Creek now has an especially handsome bridge on the new state trail, the dry cliffs of beautiful Warren Falls (below) will continue to be a ghostly testament to the arrogance and carelessness of our modern age – except on those rare stormy days each winter when the falls briefly reappears (above).


Warren Falls as it exists most of the time… for now…

Restoring the falls would have been the perfect companion to the HCRH State Trail project, itself an epic restoration project. Samuel Lancaster would surely have approved, too. It was a once in a century opportunity to do the work while heavy equipment was right in front of the falls. But if fighting City Hall is an uphill battle, then the castle walls at ODOT are still more foreboding.

The agency isn’t a monolith. There was encouragement and support from sympathetic professionals at ODOT along the way, albeit plenty of opposition from others. In the end, the agency formerly known only as the Oregon Highway Department revealed its roots, reluctant to step beyond its narrow right-of-way.

And yet the Historic Highway State Trail project, itself, is a bold step forward from simply building highways, and one the agency has been truly committed to. Thus, I’m hopeful about ODOT’s future, and the new state trail has much for us to be proud of.


So very close… but not this time…

[click here for a larger view]

Perhaps most disappointing is ODOT’s lack of ownership and sense of responsibility for a stream diversion project that today would be considered a crime against nature. Even when Warren Creek was diverted and the falls destroyed in 1939, it was jarringly at odds with the vision and reverence for the landscape of Samuel Lancaster’s Columbia River Highway, and should have sent up red flags for the Highway Department.

Still more astonishing was learning during the course of this project that none other than Conde McCullough – engineering deity to many as the designer of Oregon’s most treasured highway bridges of the 1920s and 30s – signed off on the diversion project while serving as chief engineer!

Worse, we also learned along the way that it was completely illegal to destroy the falls, even back in 1939, as revealed in this article on the blog.  Oregon wasn’t a very big place back then, so it’s hard to believe the law protecting the falls went unnoticed at the time… but the truth on that point will likely never be known.


Warren Falls flows briefly in 2015

Perhaps the greatest irony in the Warren Falls saga is that the original diversion project was designed to protect one the bridges on Sam Lancaster’s famous new road – by destroying one of the more spectacular waterfalls along the route. Lancaster died in March 1941, so it’s doubtful that he was even aware of the project as it moved forward in 1939. Let’s hope so, anyway.

Today, the crumbling diversion dam and tunnel are still listed as “assets” by ODOT, but are really just orphans, and now all but forgotten by the agency for the foreseeable future. Short of Oregon Parks and Recreation (OPRD) taking on the decommissioning as part of some sort of larger Warren Creek restoration project, the most likely outcome is continued deterioration of the diversion structure until nature finally reclaims it.

So, the campaign to restore Warren Falls is over… or is it?

Postscript… and premonition?

After years of attending meetings, writing letters, giving tours to all manner of advocates and officials and even a segment on OPB’s “Oregon Field Guide”, there weren’t many stones left to turn in coaxing ODOT to bring Warren Falls back to its original glory. On the surface, there’s very little to show for the effort.

But is that really true? It depends on how you define victory.


OPB crew at Warren Falls in 2012

Yes, in the immediate future ODOT will continue to treat Warren Creek like a glorified storm culvert, and the former Warren Falls will continue to be a depository for “trash” (what the original engineers called the rock and woody debris we now know are essential to a stream health) separated from the creek’s flow. That’s a shame, and a missed opportunity for the agency to show that it has evolved from its “Highway Department” past.


OPB crew above Warren Falls in 2012

But over the past five years, tens of thousands of people have learned the story of Warren Falls thanks to the OPB coverage, thousands more have viewed the WyEast Blog stories here and on the Restore Warren Falls Facebook page, and hundreds have visited the falls site, with more making the side trip each year to pay homage to what once was – and will be, again.

Until they see the silent cliffs where Warren Falls once flowed, most of these visitors have no idea that today’s Hole-in-the-Wall Falls is simply a man-made attraction that came at the cost of destroying Warren Falls. Armed with the history of Warren Falls, few who visit can view it as anything less than an environmental tragedy.

So, despite losing this round, Warren Falls has a lot of new friends, and a lot of people who love the Gorge have gained a better understanding of the lasting cost of “progress” and the chore of undoing our handiwork, even in places we seek to protect most.

Which brings me to…

(Not so) Secrets of the Monkey Wrench Gang…

Oh, how I wish I could share all of the schemes for liberating Warren Falls that have come my way over the past five years! They range from temporary performance art to more permanent alterations that would probably be illegal… if any governing entities were actually concerned about the fate of Warren Falls.

Still more surprising is the range of Monkey-Wrench-Gang-wannabes who proposed taking the restoration of Warren Falls into their own hands: you’ll just have to use your imagination, but some were rather prominent folks who left me speechless with their audacious plans.

So, I’ll share a few highlights, with the strict caveat from the WyEast Blog Legal Department:

NONE OF THESE ACTIVITIES APPEARS TO BE LEGAL, at least not without prior permission from the OPRD or ODOT (and good luck with that, by the way), and therefore the following DOES NOT CONDONE OR ENDORSE these ideas in any way!

Whew. Okay, well one of the most popular schemes is to roll plastic tarps over the giant “trash rack” that forms the screen over the Warren diversion tunnel. This would allow the pristine waters of Warren Creek to ride a plastic liner above the tunnel and over the natural falls. Sort of a giant slippery-slide, but with a real surprise at the end!


The massive “trash rack” that turned Warren Falls dry in 1939

Someday (on my deathbed, or possibly at the dedication of a restored Warren Falls?) I may reveal an especially prominent individual who personally pitched a version of the slippery slide to me – truly, one of the more unexpected twists in this five-year saga!

Most versions of the slippery slide focused on getting a really good look at what an unaltered Warren Falls looked like via a temporary restoration. But Warren Creek gets pretty wild and wooly in winter, so this would likely be a very brief restoration.

There’s also the question of what would happen to the tarps, once swept away, as there is a lot of potential for adding more man-made junk to an already defaced stream (assuming the tarps didn’t get hung up on the cliffs or left hanging form the outflow to Hole-in-the-Wall Falls).


OPB’s Michael Bendixen filming the “trash rack” above the brink of Warren Falls in 2012

Others suggested (WyEast Blog Legal Department repeat notice: not condoning this!) speeding up the “weathering” process that has already begun to expose and compromise the steel beams that form the “trash rack” at the top of the falls.

It turns out that in just the ten years since I’ve been advocating to restore the falls, this part of the diversion has shown noticeable deterioration, and seems to be speeding up. It turns out the top of the “trash rack” is the weakest point in the design, and is steadily unraveling. So, I’m not sure Mother Nature needs much help at this point, despite the enthusiastic volunteers out there.


OPB’s Michael Bendixen on top of the “trash rack” that rests on a cobble dam that is gradually eroding away

These photos show the vulnerability of the steel “trash rack” beams where the mortar that once fully embedded them above the diversion tunnel has been significantly compromised since 1939 by the relentless flow Warren Creek:


A closer look at the lip of the “trash rack” showing the masonry cap on the cobble dam


The masonry cap has worn thin where it anchors the top of the “trash rack” and a small garden flourishes where debris has clogged the giant grate


Creative types see an opportunity to speed up the demise of the “trash rack” where these steel beams are almost freed from the concrete cap by weathering

The motive for speeding up the release of the beams varies among schemes and schemers.

One version is to allow enough stream material to pass under the protective “trash rack” to plug up the surprisingly narrow diversion tunnel leading to Hole-in-the-Wall Falls. Which is just 60” in diameter. This is probably what Mother Nature has in mind, though it may take awhile.

Another angle on speeding up the weathering at the top of the steel beams is to allow larger debris (logs, large rocks) to wedge between the beams, thus acting as levers to literally tear it apart with hydraulic pressure during high stream flow. To a large extent, this is already happening, as at least half the rack is plugged with smaller cobbles that are twisting and bending the steel beams with the effects of freeze and thaw during the winter months.


Vince Patton from Oregon Field Guide inspecting the access vault on the west end of the “trash rack”

At least one Warren Falls fan spotted the open vault above the west end of the diversion structure and suggested diverting the creek into this hole (WyEast Blog Legal Department reprise: this is not an endorsement! Plus, you might fall into a tunnel that spit out as a man-made waterfall!), where it could move debris large enough to plug the bypass tunnel. I’m not positive, but I think solid basalt prevents this from happening – either through creative monkey-wrenching or courtesy Mother Nature. But I was impressed at the attention to detail from those who love Warren Falls!

As much as I enjoyed hearing these inspired pitches for a DIY restoration of Warren Falls, one of the reasons I advocated for removing the “trash rack” structure and filling the bypass tunnel in an orderly way was to avoid having a bunch of steel debris entombed at the lip of this beautiful falls. I’d still much prefer a thoughtful decommissioning of the diversion over a disorganized mess – whether triggered by humans or nature.

We owe it to future generations to do this right. And who knows, we may still get the chance!

What the Future Holds: Warren’s Cousins

Short of an unforeseen intervention, the restoration of Warren Falls by forces of nature will take awhile. But it turns out that Warren Falls has some similarly trod-upon cousins in the area who have suffered flagrant abuse, then been abandoned to recover on their own.

The good news: in all cases, nature is winning… albeit, very slowly.


White River Falls needlessly goes dry each summer, thanks to a derelict Pacific Power diversion that sends the river around the falls (visible dropping in on the right).

A spectacular example is White River Falls, located in a state park by that name on the east side of Mount Hood. The falls is just upstream from the confluence of the White River with the Deschutes River.

More than a century ago, the Wasco Milling Company diverted much of the falls to a giant pipeline that fed a powerhouse downstream. Energy from the powerhouse was transmitted to The Dalles. Wasco Milling later sold the plant to Pacific Power, and it was finally shut down in 1960, when the land was transferred to the state of Oregon.

Pacific Power left quite a mess behind. The abandoned power plant, numerous pipelines and the diversion dam all still survive on state park land today. During high runoff in winter and spring the diversion channel is overwhelmed, and the former glory of White River Falls is on display. But by late summer, the entire flow is still diverted into the bypass channel, tumbling around the falls where the diversion pipe once existed.


The derelict diversion channel at White River Falls

In this way, the situation at White River is not unlike present-day Hole-in-the-Wall Falls burping out of the Warren Falls bypass tunnel where it once connected to a flume that carried the creek over the old highway and to the Columbia River.

And like Warren Falls, the bypass channel “falls” at White River is a sad, ugly duckling compared to the magnificent original falls. But while there is no plan to formally decommission the diversion at White River Falls, the approach to the diversion dam is increasingly clogged with silt and debris, and should eventually fail, finally closing the chapter on the Wasco Milling Company era.

A few years ago, I reported on a now-scrapped scheme by Wasco County officials to reboot the White River generating plant, proving once again the wise words of John Muir: “Nothing dollarable is safe.” Even in an Oregon state park, it turns out.

A closer cousin to Warren Falls is popular Bridal Veil Falls, located at the far west end of the Columbia Gorge. Though few of the thousands of visitors who hike to the base of Bridal Veil Falls each year can even imagine what this spot looked like just a few decades ago, it was one of the most heavily degraded areas in the Gorge.


The lower tier of famous Bridal Veil Falls was altered for mill operations! Who knew?

The mill town of Bridal Veil was once located just 100 yards below the falls, though the town is now nothing more than concrete foundations and rusted cables covered in moss and undergrowth. In this eastward view (below) from the early 1900s, today’s Bridal Veil exit from I-84 to Multnomah Falls would be located near the buildings at the far end of the mill town.


The mill town of Bridal Veil in the early 1900s

The pile of rough-cut timber in the foreground marks the terminus of log flumes that fed the Bridal Veil mill. At least three timber flumes carried logs and rough lumber to the mill from the slopes of Larch Mountain. One flume closely followed Bridal Veil Creek with the kind of roller coaster ride theme park “log rides” have tried to replicate ever since.

In the scene below (from about 1900) the audacious scale of the flume is evident as it courses down the canyon, about a mile above Bridal Veil Falls, and just below Middle Bridal Veil Falls. The area had already been heavily logged by this time and the stream was viewed as nothing more than a steady water source and convenient path for moving old-growth timber to the mill.


The main flume followed a ravaged Bridal Veil canyon to the mill

This view (below) of the converging flumes coming into the mill site conceals Bridal Veil Falls, which is located directly beneath the flumes. Today’s trail to the falls would have travelled under all three flumes where they converge in this scene.


Flumes over Bridal Veil Falls (the falls is located directly below the flumes)

Bridal Veil Falls not only had a trio of log flumes passing overhead, the falls itself was also modified by the mill, presumably to carry water to the mill (though this is just my own speculation – I’d love to hear from mill historians who know more about this!)

The photo below shows the falls in the late 1800s, just before the lower tier had been raised about 15 feet, creating a pool below the upper tier and allowing for a diversion structure (?) to presumably carry a piped portion of the creek to the nearby mill.

During periods of low water today, you can still see parts of the diversion structure at Bridal Veil Falls poking from the water (below).


Lower tier of Bridal Veil Falls as it exists today

Here are detailed views of the diversion structure that raised the lower tier of Bridal Veil Falls to what we see today:


A closer look at what seems to be a cobble dam that raised the height of the lower tier of Bridal Veil Falls…


…and a still closer look…

This rare view from the early 1900s shows the diversion structure already in ruins or perhaps under construction? In either case, its purpose only lasted a short period, and in this way the falls is a kindred spirit to Warren Falls, where the short-lived diversion functioned for barely a decade before becoming obsolete and abandoned.


The cobble dam shortly after construction… or perhaps after it was abandoned?

Today, there are still a lot of concrete and steel reminders of the mill town, though they’re often hidden in plain sight, under layers of rust, moss and ferns. For example, this view (below) of the stream below Bridal Veil Falls reveals a “boulder” that is actually a concrete footing and an intake pipe for one of the mill ponds.


Mill relics hiding under moss at Bridal Veil Falls

Other large waterfalls on Bridal Veil Creek were impacted by the mill operation, but have recovered dramatically in the decades since the mill finally closed in the 1960s. Here are then-and-now photos of Middle and Upper Bridal Veil Falls:


[click here for a larger version]


[click here for a larger version]

In more recent years, stolen automobiles have periodically been pushed from the cliffs along historic Palmer Mill Road into Bridal Veil canyon. Some of these dumped vehicles have been pulled from the canyon, but others are too difficult to reach, and are slowly fading into the forest.

While they have undoubtedly released engine fluids into the creek and have plastic parts that will last for decades, nature and Bridal Veil Creek are nonetheless making short work of the rest of these vehicles.


Moss and ferns consuming a dumped Hyundai Santa Fe just above Upper Bridal Veil Falls (photo courtesy Jamen Lee)

Unlike Warren Falls, the waterfalls on Bridal Veil Creek were never completely diverted from their natural streambed, yet the overall impact of logging and milling at Bridal Veil had a much larger impact on the larger watershed than anything Warren Creek endured. The fact that Mother Nature has consumed most of what wasn’t salvaged when the flumes were pulled from Bridal Veil canyon in the mid-1900s is an inspiration for the ongoing recovery of Warren Falls.

In time, all traces of our impact on the environment really can heal – provided we allow it to happen. Responsibly cleaning up after ourselves would be a more noble path, of course, but at least nature seems to forgive us in time… so far.

Warren Falls Lives!


False alarm! Horsetail does look a lot like Warren Falls, though…

A few weeks ago, the local waterfall hunting community had a brief moment of excitement when a vintage 1918 film seemed to include a rare view of Warren Falls! But after looking more closely at the images, it turned out to be Horsetail Falls in very low flow. So, the hunt for a photograph of Warren Falls before the 1939 diversion project continues.

But the similarity was real, so the following is a rough guess of what we might see – and perhaps, sooner than we think: Warren Falls flowing again, returning its amazing amphitheater to mossy green, as the diversion structure continues to crumble into history.


For waterfall devotees, this is Horsetail Falls superimposed on Warren’s dry cliff with the reversed base of Dry Creek Falls providing the foreground.

[click here for a large version]

Of course, we already know what a small amount of flow over Warren Falls looks like during high runoff events, as shown in previous photos in this article. What we don’t know is what the full force of Warren Creek might look like coming over this 120-foot escarpment, and especially what it might do with 77 years of accumulated stream debris piled at the base of the natural falls.

We have a pretty good idea, though, based on recent dam removals around the Pacific Northwest. It turns out that streams are surprisingly quick to redistribute accumulated debris and restore themselves to their natural stream state, as we’ve seen with dam removals on the Hood, Little Sandy and White Salmon rivers.

Today, Warren Creek below falls has been reduced to ditch, radically moved by ODOT from its former channel in the 1950s and devoid of the rocks and woody debris essential to a healthy stream since 1939, thanks to the “trash rack”.


Add some rocks and logs to lower Warren Creek and it might look like this someday

[click here for a large version]

When Warren Falls returns, the huge pile of stream debris will begin to move downstream, and the debris-starved lower section of Warren Creek will develop the pools and eddies necessary for salmon and steelhead to spawn, as imagined above.

The good news is that the new HCRH State Trail passes high and wide over Warren Creek, ensuring that the creek can evolve back to a natural state in the future without a redux of the 1930s highway impacts that led to the diversion of Warren Falls.

When will Warren Falls return? Not just now… but perhaps sooner than we think.

Meanwhile, we wait… and watch.


(Part two of this article will focus on a review of the newly completed Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail segment from Starvation Creek to Wonder Creek, and passing Warren Falls)


 To revisit the complete history of the Restore Warren Falls project, here are earlier WyEast blog articles on the subject:

 An Overdue Warren Falls Update (and a bombshell!)

“Warren Falls Lives… Again?”

Warren Falls Solutions

“Warren Falls, we’re ready for your closeup…”

 Warren Falls Mystery… Solved!

Restoring Warren Creek Falls


Warren Falls on Oregon Field Guide


Restore Warren Falls on Facebook!




Rediscovering McCord Creek!

McCord Creek takes on more subtle hues in winter

McCord Creek takes on more subtle hues in winter

Beautiful McCord Creek boasts a pair of impressive waterfalls that are among the most photogenic in the Columbia River Gorge. The falls are tucked into John B. Yeon State Park, a lesser-known park located about halfway between Multnomah Falls and Cascade Locks.

The rustic CCC-era trails to McCord Creek’s waterfalls have been “discovered” in recent years from spring through fall by crowds of weekend hikers. Yet, the area is surprisingly un-crowded during the wet winter months, from late fall through early spring, and the muted winter tones are just as beautiful.

The area also has a long and fascinating human history that is on display throughout the hike, if you know where to look. This article provides a guide to both the trail and the history of the McCord Creek area.

Frank Warren's salmon cannery (site of today's Warrendale) in 1902

Frank Warren’s salmon cannery (site of today’s Warrendale) in 1902

The human history in this part of the Gorge stretches back thousands of years, as the river was home to a thriving culture of Native American peoples.

The Upper Chinookan people of the Columbia River Gorge fished the legendary autumn salmon runs and picked huckleberries and other wild fruits and forage before moving away from the river during the often harsh winters that we know so well today. An especially elaborate example of the mysterious stone pits thought to be built by native people for ceremonial purposes can still be found high above McCord Creek, on Wauneka Point.

White settlement came to the Gorge in the 1800s, and ushered in an era of profound tragedy for the native people, with epidemics of measles and other European diseases decimating native populations, and white settlement displacing native peoples from places they had inhabited for millennia. It’s an uncomfortable reality to confront today, but also important to never forget as we try to understand our history.

White settlers were equally destructive for the land and natural resources, as well. In a matter of a few decades, the Gorge slopes were almost completely logged of ancient forests and giant fish wheels built along the river were part of the commercial overfishing that nearly collapsed the salmon runs that had sustained Native Americans here for thousands of years.

Frank and Anna Warren in the early 1900s

Frank and Anna Warren in the early 1900s

Frank Warren was among the prominent industrialists operating fish wheels to supply a cannery he built at Warrendale. Today, only a residential district by that name remains to mark the site, just downstream from McCord Creek.

In the heyday of the Columbia River canneries at the turn of the 20th Century, canned salmon from the Warren packing company was exported around the world, and Columbia River canned salmon was as ubiquitous as cans of tuna are in our supermarkets today. But overfishing by gill nets, fish traps and fish wheels nearly destroyed the salmon runs. Fish wheels were finally outlawed by the 1930s, as the canning industry on the Columbia continued its decline. The last salmon cannery on the river closed in the 1970s.

1890s Harpers Weekly illustration of a Columbia River fish wheel

1890s Harpers Weekly illustration of a Columbia River fish wheel

Warren’s packing business made him a millionaire, and he and his wife Anna celebrated their 40th anniversary in style with a 3-month European tour in 1912. For their return trip, the Warrens reserved a first-class stateroom on the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic.

Anna Warren’s riveting account of the Titanic disaster in April 1912 was featured in the Morning Oregonian twelve days after the incident, creating a local sensation. Her tragic story recounted how her husband Frank helped her onto a lifeboat, with Anna assuming he had followed her in. Instead, when she looked back, she saw Frank helping other women into the boats.

At the time Anna Warren’s account was published, Frank Warren’s fate was still unknown, but he was later identified as among the more than 1,500 who perished that night. Anna Warren was one of just 710 survivors of the disaster.

Myron Kelly's pulp mill at McCord Creek in the 1890s

Myron Kelly’s pulp mill at McCord Creek in the 1890s

At about the same time that Frank Warren was operating his Warrendale cannery in the late 1800s, another settler by the name of Myron Kelly was operating a small pulp mill near McCord Creek. Kelly’s mill used a pair of 400-foot long, riveted steel penstocks to power the pulp manufacturing. Though the mill is long gone, portions of the penstocks still survive. They are clearly visible in the 1890s view of the mill, above.

The penstocks were fed with water from McCord Creek, diverted from above the waterfalls, and routed to the penstocks along the cliff-top ledge we now use as a hiking trail. Kelly used a natural break between basalt layers to blast out the ledge, and hardware from the pipe system is still found throughout the cliff area today. Black cottonwood trees — the same we see lining the river today — provided the raw material for making pulp.

This 1890s photo shows water spouting from the long penstock that drove Myron Kelly's pulp mill

This 1890s photo shows water spouting from the long penstock that drove Myron Kelly’s pulp mill

Surviving portions of the two penstocks are prominently crossed by the trail to Upper McCord Creek Falls, along with other relics sprinkled through the forest. The large wood water cistern located near McCord Creek trailhead is not from the Kelly pulp mill era, surprisingly, and was added later to supply water to area homes.

The early industrial settlements in the Gorge relied on railroads and ships for transport, as there was no road until the early 1900s. That changed in 1916, when the new Columbia River Highway was dedicated with much fanfare. The highway is still famous, cherished by millions of visitors over the past century for its careful attention to the landscape and surrounding Gorge scenery. Perhaps most iconic are its string of graceful bridges.

Columbia River Highway bridge at McCord Creek under construction in 1915 (Wauneka Point towers above)

Columbia River Highway bridge at McCord Creek under construction in 1915 (Wauneka Point towers above)

The original highway bridge at McCord Creek was completed in 1915, and while it wasn’t as graceful as some of the more famous arched bridges, it was nonetheless a spectacular structure. Early travelers not only had a front-row view of Elowah Falls on McCord Creek, but also a sweeping vista across the Columbia to Beacon Rock and the mountains that rise along the Washington side of the Gorge.

The original McCord Creek Bridge was among the longest along the old highway at 365 feet. The old structure was durable enough to be incorporated into the first “modern” highway in the Gorge in the 1950s, when much of the original Columbia River Highway was bypassed. The original McCord Creek Bridge was simply expanded to carry the wider road, and later a twin structure was built to accommodate the development of today’s freeway. The original bridge structure was finally replaced in 1987 with a new bridge, after 70 years of service.

Completed McCord Creek bridge in 1915, with the Kelly pulp mill conduits visible in the cliffs high above, and Elowah Falls behind the bridge

Completed McCord Creek bridge in 1915, with the Kelly pulp mill conduits visible in the cliffs high above, and Elowah Falls behind the bridge

The new McCord Creek Bridge in the 1920s as it appeared from the cliffs above Elowah Falls

The new McCord Creek Bridge in the 1920s as it appeared from the cliffs above Elowah Falls

By the 1930s, the New Deal programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s national recovery effort brought the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to the Gorge. Many of the trails we enjoy today were built — or rebuilt — by the CCC, including the McCord Creek trail.

The CCC crews were expert trail builders, and made quick work of the steep Gorge slopes with carefully graded switchbacks constructed with miles of hand-built, rustic stone retaining walls. The original trail at McCord Creek began at the east end of the old highway bridge, traversed to dramatic viewpoints of Elowah Falls, then crossed McCord Creek to climb the east shoulder of the canyon to the upper falls.

Civilian Conservation Corps crew building the catwalk section of the McCord Creek Trail in 1936 (highway bridge visible in lower left corner of photo)

Civilian Conservation Corps crew building the catwalk section of the McCord Creek Trail in 1936 (highway bridge visible in lower left corner of photo)

It was here that the CCC trail builders seized upon the route of Myron Kelly’s penstock conduit around the towering cliffs above Elowah Falls. The photo above shows crews clearing the ledge in 1936 to repurpose the route as a bold new hiking trail.

The galvanized steel handrails that now give some assurance to hikers along this airy catwalk are not mentioned in a fairly detailed 1936 Daily Oregonian story describing the new trail. These were probably added in the 1950s, when similar railings were installed in other parks around the Gorge — and it’s easy to see why this retrofit was needed as you walk along the 300-foot brink!

Beacon Rock and the McCord Creek Bridge as they appeared from the original CCC trail to Elowah Falls

Beacon Rock and the McCord Creek Bridge as they appeared from the original CCC trail to Elowah Falls

The 1936 Daily Oregonian article also mentions one of the more famous features of the area during the early days of the Columbia River Highway. The McCord Creek Bridge construction in 1915 had unearthed a large petrified tree near the east end of the bridge, embedded in the road cut. The tree became a popular feature along the old road, and also marked the start of the McCord Creek trail.

The whereabouts of the petrified tree are unknown today, as it must have been moved (or destroyed) when the modern highway was constructed in the 1950s. Curious Gorge author Scott Cook speculates that it may have found its way to Cascade Locks, where a petrified log now sits on display at the Marine Park. Petrified logs are not uncommon in this part of the Gorge, however, so the fate of this most famous log may never be known for certain.

Update: Scott Cook has located the petrified tree! It was apparently shipped to the University of Oregon Natural History Museum when the modern freeway was built, and placed next to a replica of the Willamette Meteorite. Scott tells me that ODOT historic highway staff approached museum officials a couple of years ago about moving the tree back to its original home (of a few million years), but it’s unclear if that idea gained any traction. The beautiful new McCord Creek bridge sure seems like an appropriate home for the old tree! Stay tuned – I’ll report any news on the subject as it comes.

This petrified log was located at the east end of the McCord Creek bridge, near the original trailhead

This petrified log was located at the east end of the McCord Creek bridge, near the original trailhead

The human history of the McCord Creek area has taken another dramatic turn in recent years with the construction of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail. The new bike and pedestrian route is an ambitious, decades-long effort by the State of Oregon to restore lost sections of the original highway, eventually re-connecting the entire original route from Troutdale to The Dalles.

In 2012, construction of the HCRH State Trail section from John B. Yeon State Park to Tanner Creek was in full swing, and featured a handsome new bridge over McCord Creek that rivals the original highway bridges in its design and attention to detail.

The new Historic Columbia River Highway state trail bridge at McCord Creek under construction in 2012

The new Historic Columbia River Highway state trail bridge at McCord Creek under construction in 2012

The completion of this new segment of the HCRH State Trail has opened loop high opportunities in the McCord Creek area, as well as the opportunity to bike and hike — as described below in this article.

Exploring the Trail Secrets of McCord Creek

A young family enjoying the McCord Creek Trail in late autumn

A young family enjoying the McCord Creek Trail in late autumn

Now that you know some of the history of McCord Creek, it’s time to explore the trail! This is a half-day hike for most, so makes for a great option during the short days of winter, when most higher elevation trails are snowed in. It’s also a great family hike, with lots to look at and modest grades throughout, thanks to careful design by its CCC builders.

Like most Gorge trails, the hike has cliffs, poison oak and ticks, so keep an eye on small kids, leash your dog, learn to identify and avoid poison oak and do a tick check when you get home. One of the added advantages of doing this hike during the winter months is that poison oak leaves have dropped, greatly reducing the possibility of bringing home an itchy rash from your hike! Ticks are also much less active in winter — and not particularly prevalent in this particular area — though you should always do a tick check after hiking in the Gorge.

McCord Creek Trail map

McCord Creek Trail map

[click here for a larger, printable map]

The hike starts at the John B. Yeon trailhead (driving instructions at the end of this article), and after passing the old wooden cistern mentioned above, you immediately reach the first poorly-signed junction. The trail to the right heads off to Nesmith Point, so continue straight (left) instead, past an empty signpost and traverse above the trailhead parking area.

Soon, the trail begins a very gradual climb on what is actually an old roadbed, now just a very wide and rustic path. This section of trail was opened sometime after the modern freeway was constructed in the 1950s, and the original trailhead for the McCord Creek trail relocated from its old location on the east side of the creek.

The first of several confusing signs along the trail…

The first of several confusing signs along the trail…

At about one-half mile from the trailhead, the old roadbed ends at a “T” junction with the original CCC trail and another confusing signpost. From this point in the hike, the trip has two forks, with up-and-back spurs to follow, one to each of the two waterfalls. The best way to enjoy the hike is to go right at this junction, and continue climbing toward Upper McCord Creek Falls as your first destination.

As you climb the 1.2 miles to the upper falls, watch for the beautifully constructed stone retaining walls that line much of the trail. They are now cloaked in moss and licorice fern, but have held up amazingly well since the stones were first placed almost 80 years ago by CCC workers.

Legacy of the CCC - rustic stone retaining walls like these are found throughout the hike

Legacy of the CCC – rustic stone retaining walls like these are found throughout the hike

After several switchbacks through steep forest, you will encounter the remains of the old pulp mill penstock pipes. One is located at the end of a switchback, the other crosses the main trail.

Look closely at the second pipe, and you can see the doomed efforts of some early trail crew to actually cut through the surprisingly solid pipe! Up close, you can also see the thousands of rivets used to assemble pipes of this kind in the late 1800s in a way that could withstand the intense water pressure.

Myron Kelly's sturdy penstock pipes still survive along the upper trail

Myron Kelly’s sturdy penstock pipes still survive along the upper trail

The trail passes through a couple more switchbacks beyond the penstock pipes before reaching the spectacular and exhilarating catwalk section, some 300 dizzying feet above McCord Creek. The handrail makes this section very safe, so take the time to look for traces of the old mill conduit that once carried water from McCord Creek around this ledge — there are old bolts and bits of pipe if you watch closely.

The catwalk section has reassuring railing atop the 300-foot cliffs

The catwalk section has reassuring railing atop the 300-foot cliffs

Traces of the old waterworks are still visible on the upper trail

Traces of the old waterworks are still visible on the upper trail

The views from the cliffs are also impressive. On most days, Aldrich and Table Mountains on the Washington side of the Columbia River dominate the horizon, but on clear days, the very top of Mount Adams can also be seen. Further on, the catwalk section of trail also allows a birds-eye view of Elowah Falls dropping into its huge amphitheater, far below.

Sweeping cliff-top views stretch across the Columbia to Aldrich and Table Mountains -- and the very top of Mount Adams, in the distance

Sweeping cliff-top views stretch across the Columbia to Aldrich and Table Mountains — and the very top of Mount Adams, in the distance

If you happen to be hiking the trail during the busier months of May or early June, you’ll have an extra treat on the catwalk section, as the rocks are lined with tiny, hanging wildflowers that cling to the cliffs. Conversely, if you hike the trail in very cold winter weather, you’ll find a spectacular array of icicles along this section (making the handrail that much more appreciated!)

The catwalk portion of the hike ends abruptly when the trail disappears into the lush upper canyon of McCord Creek. Just a few steps into this beautiful rainforest, the view suddenly opens to the twin cascades of Upper McCord Creek Falls. This is an idyllic spot to stop for lunch and photographs. The trail continues a few hundred yards to the edge of McCord Creek, just above the falls, where the intake for Myron Kelly’s pulp plant was apparently located.

Lovely Upper McCord Creek Falls

Lovely Upper McCord Creek Falls

To complete the second leg of the hike, retrace your route down to the “T” junction and continue straight (right) in a traverse across a mossy talus field. Soon, the trail abruptly drops into the lower McCord Creek canyon with another series of switchbacks. In this section, you’ll see old cable railings at an overgrown viewpoint that dates to the 1940s or 50s. You will also have a view down to the new McCord Creek Bridge on the HCRH State Trail, far below.

The lower trail soon traverses above noisy McCord Creek before arriving at the spectacular base of 213-foot Elowah Falls. The trail crosses the stream on a wooden footbridge here, and during the rainy season, expect to get wet — the spray is impressive!

This pretty section of the original CCC trail is now bypassed, but fun to explore

This pretty section of the original CCC trail is now bypassed, but fun to explore

You can do the fragile canyon ecosystem at Elowah Falls a favor in this area by not scrambling up the various boot paths that have formed here. Most are dead-ends left by hiking newbies that go nowhere, but are beginning to have an impact on the landscape.

Instead, there’s a better way to visit a lesser-visited viewpoint of the falls. Simply continue beyond the footbridge and begin traversing downstream along the canyon for about one-quarter mile. As the trail begins to curve away from the stream, watch for an obvious path on the right and above the main trail. This is a bypassed section of the original trail, and it’s in excellent shape for exploring.

You can follow the old tread past a couple of switchbacks, then to a fork, where a short spur leads left to a spectacular, boulder-top view of the Elowah Falls, framed by bigleaf maples. The main portion of the old tread continues a bit further, then dead-ends at another great view of the falls, where you can also see the modern trail and footbridge, below.

Elowah Falls from a viewpoint along the old trail section

Elowah Falls from a viewpoint along the old trail section

If you do explore this abandoned section of trail, please stay on the tread — it’s obvious and easy to follow, with much of it still lined with CCC stone retaining walls. In recent years, boot paths to the viewpoints on the old trail have formed from the modern trail, below, so be sure not to reinforce these and simply retrace your steps along the old route to return to the main trail.

If you’re looking for a longer hike and more variety, you can also continue east from Elowah Falls for about a mile to the newly completed HCRH State Trail, where you’ll find a signpost marking the junction. Turn left on the wide, paved trail and follow it 1.2 miles back to the Yeon Trailhead, passing the impressive new McCord Creek Bridge along the way — another nice stop along the hike. This section of the new HCRH State Trail is noisy, as it follows the freeway closely, but it’s an interesting and new way to appreciate the Gorge from a different perspective.

How to Get There

From Portland, take I-84 to Ainsworth (Exit 35), a few miles east of Multnomah Falls and the eastern access to the drivable western section of the Historic Columbia River Highway. Turn left at the first intersection, then almost immediately turn right onto a frontage road where signs points to Warrendale. From here, continue east on the frontage road to the Yeon State Park trailhead, where the frontage road terminates at an eastbound freeway ramp. To return to Portland, follow the frontage road west to the Ainsworth interchange, and follow signs to Portland.

No trailhead permits are required here, and no restrooms or water are provided (note: water and restrooms are available just west of the Ainsworth interchange, at Ainsworth State Park). Dogs must be leashed in this state park! At least two dogs have had to be rescued by search and rescue teams in the Gorge after falling from cliffs this year because of careless owners who took exception to posted rules. Please set an example and respect this rule… and enjoy your trip!

Special thanks to Scott Cook for his help on this article! Be sure to pick up a copy of Scott’s new guide to Portland: PDXccentric: the odyssey of Portland oddities! You can learn more on the PDXccentric Facebook page.